Kathryn Garvey remembers the beginning of the Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Safe Routes program like it was yesterday.
“We launched our program with a joke-slash-art contest in the schools,” she said, “called ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ We got hundreds of entries and the chicken mascot was officially hatched. If you were to ask students now what they think of first when they think of Safe Routes to School, they would not say the new paths or Safe Houses or even the crossing guards. They would say Walk to School Day and the Chicken.”
The Safe Routes Chagrin earned the 2012 James L. Oberstar Safe Routes to School Award from the National Center for Safe Routes to School—not because of Walk to School Day and the Chicken, well not just because of them, but for the overall scope of its programs that include the new paths, the Safe Houses, the crossing guards, and many other activities.
“The selection committee was very impressed with the breadth and depth of Chagrin Falls’ program,” Lauren Marchetti, director of the National Center for Safe Routes to School, said in a release announcing the Oberstar Award winner. “They really did it all. Their creative approach spanned the ‘5 E’s’ that are ideal for any SRTS program: engineering and infrastructure, enforcement, safety education, encouragement and evaluation.”
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Chagrin Falls is a village of about 4,000 residents located on both sides of the Chagrin River at the site of river’s “High Falls.” Settlers from New England came to this location about 17 miles east-southeast of Cleveland in the 1830s to take advantage of the water power. A gristmill was built here in 1836, with many other factories and mills—flour mills, woolen mills, saw mills, paper mills, a foundry and a woodenware factory—to follow through the mid-1800s.
Now Chagrin Falls is something of a local tourist destination, reminding visitors of a quaint New England village complete with town square (actually a triangle), historic architecture, bustling Main Street, and of course the picturesque falls. Art galleries, antique shops, restaurants, trendy houseware merchants and an independent book store attract other visitors, as do the town’s plentiful art programs which include the Valley Art Center, Chagrin Falls Studio Orchestra, Chagrin Documentary Film Festival, Chagrin Academy for the Performing Arts, and Chagrin Valley Little Theater.
Amid all this history, art and charm people live normal lives. Many in the town work in Cleveland, a 40 minute commute. About 330 kids get up on weekday mornings and go to the Middle School (grades 7-8); another 480 kids get up and go to the Intermediate School (grades 4-6). The majority of those students—about 66 percent—live within two miles of school in this town with an area of just 2.1 square miles, and 35 percent live within a mile of school.
“Chagrin Falls is a walking community, or at least it should be,” says Kathryn Garvey, the Safe Routes Chagrin president. “Like many small towns in America, while our residents appreciate the value of being able to walk virtually everywhere, they had come to rely on the convenience of driving.”
To wit, before the Safe Routes Chagrin program began in 2009, only 17 percent of Intermediate School students walked or biked to school. Now 26 percent of those students walk or bike, a 54 percent increase that equates to 50 additional kids—about 130 total.
The way this change happened is a story of cooperation—cooperation among the village government, the school district, the parents of school children, the police department, merchants, and the community around core goals emphasizing safety and encouragement. Each goal is supported by several activities that collectively engage all five E’s of effective Safe Routes programs and engage the entire community’s cooperation.
The program began with evaluation and planning, and a little SRTS seed money.
“We would not have launched our program without the first $2,000 in federal funds to support the evaluation of our current travel environment and the determination of programs and strategies to meet our goals,” said Garvey.
That evaluation, which included parent surveys, identified physical impediments to active travel, parental concerns, and ingrained unsafe practices.
Physical barriers included a lack of sidewalks from the north side of town to the schools and a lack of clearly defined paths on school property to the school buildings.
Parental concerns included unsafe intersections, a lack of crossing guards and children’s safety related to possible abduction attempts.
Many of those children who did walk or bike often did so unsafely, noted Garvey.
“Before our program began, over half the students who walked or biked to school would jaywalk mid-block to get to school faster,” Garvey said. “This resulted in a daily occurrence of cars screeching to a halt and near misses as kids screamed and ran across a very busy street in the school zone. Another unsafe practice, taking a popular cut-through on private property through a secluded wooded area, had been deeply entrenched for generations in our community.”
Unsafe conditions also led to policies preventing students from riding bikes to the campus shared by the middle school and high school, according to Garvey.
“At our middle school, the school board had adopted a policy against biking to school because there was no way for bikes to enter school grounds without entering the flow of vehicles driven by high school students and they were concerned about safety,” she said.
To improve sidewalks and pathways for walkers and bicyclists on school routes the town sought and got SRTS funding to add new sidewalks and fix continuity problems at prioritized locations on school routes. A community outreach campaign and enforcement of the local snow removal ordinance made sidewalks safer for school children in the town that receives an average annual snowfall of 78 inches. SRTS funding was used to make new walk/bike paths on school campuses.
“The new paths we installed on school property to separate students from the flow of traffic contributed to our success in improving safety and increasing the number of student walkers and bikers,” said Garvey. “By installing a new bike path in 2011 on the middle and high school campus, we effectively changed the school policy against biking and opened the possibility for middle school students to bike to school. And adding sidewalks from the north side of town will connect nearly 140 additional students to their schools.”
To improve safety at intersections on school routes the town implemented a No Right on Red policy during school hours at key intersections, added “School Zone” signs, driver feedback signs, and other signs and pavement markings, and enlisted the police to enforce speed limits and crosswalk rules during school arrival and dismissal periods.
“The Village government and police department have been key partners in our program,” Garvey said. “The Village supported the No Right on Red ordinance at key intersections near the school and approved all the sidewalk and signage changes. The police created a start-of-school safety force for the first few weeks of the school year to reinforce safety in school zones. The police also consult on safety issues, provide safety at our events, plan and staff the annual bike rodeo, and run radar to enforce school zone speed limits year-round.”
To improve student safety on walking and bicycling routes Safe Routes Chagrin worked with local police to recruit, train, equip and support 25 volunteer crossing guards. Crossing guards are stationed at four major intersections near the Intermediate School every morning and afternoon.
“The crossing guards have had a big impact on safety and on the number of students walking to school,” Garvey said. “Before the program began, 76 percent of parents surveyed indicated the lack of crossing guards as a reason their child did not walk to school and 89 percent cited concerns over safety at intersections. In 2012, only 20 percent of parents cited lack of crossing guards as a concern and about 53 percent reported safety at intersections as a concern. Conversely, 50 percent of parents said the presence of crossing guards was a factor in their decision to allow their child to walk.”
To further address safety concerns, Safe Routes Chagrin launched an impressive Safe House program.
“A Safe House is a home along the school walking route that is clearly marked as a safe place for students to go if they need assistance or help,” Garvey explained. “Safe House volunteers are given a background check. They do not have to be home all the time, but it is helpful if generally there is an adult home during the time students are walking to and from school. We now have thirty Safe Houses in the Village, each marked with a ‘Safe House’ garden flag and marked on the School Routes Map.”
A third safety feature is educational outreach, teaching safety to students in a variety of ways: bike rodeos, integrating bike safety education into the physical education curriculum, PA announcements and newsletter articles, Walk to School Day and Bike to School Day events, and safety education assemblies in the schools.
“We grappled with how to involve and motivate older students in our Safe Routes programs and how to reach younger students with educational programs that would resonate with them,” Garvey said. “Our solution was to involve older students in educational outreach programs to younger students. Our local community theater works with middle and high school students to stage safety skits at the Intermediate and Middle schools. The skits include themes like feeling good and healthy when walking, handling bullying on the way to school, and being polite and courteous in town.”
With the new sidewalks, school campus paths, crossing guards and Safe Houses in place, Safe Routes Chagrin worked with school administrators to develop new policies for arrival and dismissal aimed at keeping walkers and bikers safe by using the established school routes. Arrival and dismissal instructions are emphasized on a School Routes Map created and distributed widely by Safe Routes Chagrin. The map also shows the location of Safe Houses and the intersections patrolled by crossing guards.
“Within two years,” Garvey said, “the jaywalking, taking cut-throughs and other unsafe behaviors stopped. We are so proud to have achieved a track record of consistently avoiding major accidents and safety incidents involving students as they travel to and from school.”
Another proud achievement for the program is the dramatic increase in the number of students using their own power to get to school on a regular basis, as noted above—26 percent now, versus 17 percent before the program began, an increase of 54 percent. These increases extend even further for specific events, particularly in the vast numbers of students participating in the program’s signature Walk to School/Walk to Town Day.
“For our first Walk to School Day event in 2009,” Garvey recalled, “we had about 30 middle school students walk and about 119 intermediate school students. The following year we involved the middle school student council in planning the event and had a huge increase in participation there with 115 middle school students walking. We have continued to involve students in planning the event, expanding to include the intermediate school student council as well, and in fall 2012 we had 180 middle school students participate—51 percent of the student body—and over 300 Intermediate School students—70 percent.”
The reason for that success goes far beyond just involving the student councils in planning. Walk to School/Walk to Town Day has evolved into a community-wide celebration that includes a Fun Fitness Fair, a Historical Scavenger Hunt, middle school Team Outfit and Team Mascot contests, prizes, healthy snacks and a closing ceremony. Local businesses provide the snacks and movement related activities and games at the fitness fair, the town’s historical society creates and provides volunteers for the scavenger hunt, and the Chagrin Falls Dad’s Club even gets involved by helping with set-up and clean-up, paying for healthy snacks and organizing a huge tug-of-war.
Reflecting on the entire scope of the Safe Routes Chagrin program—from the new paths to the Safe Houses to the crossing guards, Garvey attributes the program’s success to the collective action of the community partners.
“We've built a truly cooperative endeavor between the village government, the school district, the police department, parents of school children, local merchants and the community which has allowed us to meet our goals to improve safety and encourage more students to walk and bike and to build a sustainable program supported by our entire community,” Garvey said.
“Our community is honored and grateful to have been selected as the 2012 Oberstar Award winner. There are many wonderful changes happening in communities around the nation due in large part to the vision of Congressman Oberstar in pioneering the Safe Routes to School program, complete with funding and support. Programs like this are essential for small communities like Chagrin Falls with minimal funds to make the types of infrastructure and educational outreach changes that must be made together at one time to effect a cultural shift toward walking and biking. We hope that our success can be a testimonial to what can be accomplished with relatively minimal funds and a whole lot of community involvement.”
And to think it all began with a joke contest and a chicken.
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Read the National Center for Safe Routes to School’s Oberstar Award news release
Read the Safe Routes Chagrin Oberstar Award news release
Learn more about the Safe Routes Chagrin program on its website, saferouteschagrin.com.